OPINION: Raising Campaign Money Doesn’t Build Character; It Reveals Character


Shortly after the cooling of the earth when I was a younger man, I managed political campaigns for Governor, for mayor, for the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House. Some of my candidates, in spite of my brilliant managing, actually won. I learned early on that the legendary Speaker of the California State Assembly, Jesse “Big Daddy” Unruh, was absolutely correct when he observed, “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.”
Raising campaign contributions taught me an important theological truth: God gives money to the least interesting, least appealing and, often, the most irritating of Her creatures. I cannot count the number of perfectly good days that were spoiled by my, in soulless pursuit of a big campaign contribution, pretending to listen to Some Rich Guy’s stupid theory about how a cadre of Presbyterians were plotting to take over  the local school board or why any increase in the nation’s indefensibly low minimum being paid to America’s most marginalized workers constituted a lethal threat to the beleaguered private equity profession.
The irrationality of raising campaign contributions is obvious on its face. We, candidates, managers or political people, approach a Perfect (often imperfect) Stranger and dun him or her for large contributions to our candidate or our cause, all the while pretending naively or just foolishly that the well-heeled Stranger expects absolutely nothing in return. Who gives to a campaign has, I can assure you, some specific expectation — either a change in the zoning law that will allow the donor’s proposed project to go forward, an ambassadorship to an English-speaking country or, perhaps, just a minor adjustment in the tax code exempting corporations that were founded in Delaware before May 13, 1977.
I can recall the first time the pervasive corruption of campaign fundraising dawned on me. I was interviewing a Massachusetts state officeholder in his office on assorted policy and political matters.
This officeholder had a devoted and trusted secretary, a sweet-looking older woman who might have been his grandmother. In the course of my scheduled 30-minute interview, the secretary, on four different occasions, politely but insistently interrupted to tell my source that “Mr. Green” was on the phone and had to speak to my source briefly. Each time the call was from “Mr. Green,” and I stepped outside so as not to eavesdrop on a private conversation. It was only later that evening when a more worldly female colleague of mine explained that “Mr. Green” was shorthand for an important campaign contributor. It made sense.
The late Sen. William Proxmire, the maverick Democratic senator from Wisconsin, for whom I worked on Capitol Hill for three years, refused to accept political action committee contributions or major campaign contributions, which he mailed back to the individuals or interests that had sent them to him. Proxmire was blunt about money and politics: “The people who are giving the money (PACs and large campaign contributions) are just trying to buy a vote.” He was right when he said it 30 years ago, and he, tragically, is even more right today. The tsunami of money drowning American politics pollutes American democracy.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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